It's fun to break down a genre into sub-genres and see what they bring to the whole. Here are four possible sub-genres for surf music; cinematic drama, barefoot beach party, hotrod hoodlum, and sensuous jungle tiki.
Cinematic drama is the first principle of surf music. Dick Dale said he wanted to capture the sound of the ocean and the thrill of surfing. The fast tempos and minor cadences of surf music sound exotic and dangerous. They also map easily onto cinematic ideas like spies, monsters, and desperados. Examples would be Pipeline (Chantays), Miserlu (Deltones), Rumble at Waikiki (Jon & the Nightriders).
The barefoot beach party is just what it sounds like. Major keys, catchy hooks, and even (gasp) harmony vocals. It's party time and everybody is dancing and having fun. Examples? Malibu Run (Richie Allen), Baja (Astronauts), Longboard Legato (Slacktone), and the goofy ultra-choreographed dance sequence in the movie "Horror of Party Beach".
Duane Eddy and The Ventures might be more rockabilly than surf but their contributions are essential. The low string, tremolo twang of Rebel Rouser and Forty Miles of Bad Road are iconic and the Ventures wrote the book on clean snappy guitar. The Hot Rod, Surf, and Latino cultures of 50s and 60s SoCal are different corners of the same world.
Thousands of WWII veterans brought back memories of the Pacific Islands and the mysterious lands beyond. Trader Vic and Don The Beachcomber invented tiki culture which fits right in with the sunny vibe of surfing. The exotica sounds of Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman are the "sensous jungle tiki" part of surf. Make a bird noise here...
Any nostalgia one might hear in surf is less about music and more about the energy and optimism of a high point in American history. Because of it's diverse roots, surf music brings that energy and optimism to any place or time. The many influences of surf give musicians a wide stylistic range of expression. So whether you're a ducktailed, bass-thumping rockabilly, a dive-bombing adrenaline junkie, or a laid back ganja-hipster, there's room for all under the banner of surf!